Program Notes

Symphony No. 4 in G major

BORN: July 7, 1860. Kalischt (Kaliště), Bohemia, near the town of Humpolec
DIED: May 18, 1911. Vienna

COMPOSED: Except for the finale, which was composed as a song with piano accompaniment in February 1892, Mahler wrote the Fourth between June 1899 and April 1901. On the basis of his experience conducting the work, he continued to tinker with the orchestration. The score used in these performances was published in 1963 by the International Gustav Mahler Society, Vienna, which incorporates the composer’s final revisions, made after the last performances he conducted with the New York Philharmonic in January 1911

WORLD PREMIERE: November 25, 1901. Soprano Margarete Michalek was soloist, with Mahler conducting the Kaim Orchestra of Munich

NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE: November 6, 1904. Etta de Montjau was soloist, with Walter Damrosch leading the New York Symphony Society

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST— November 1922. Mabel Riegelman was soloist, Alfred Hertz conducted. MOST RECENT—May 2015. Susanna Phillips was soloist, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 4 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (2nd doubling high clarinet in E-flat, 3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, timpani, bass drum, triangle, sleigh bells, glockenspiel, cymbals, tam-tam, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 55 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Many a love affair with Mahler has begun with the sunlit Fourth Symphony. Mahler himself thought of it as a work whose transparency, relative brevity, and non-aggressive stance might win him new friends. It enraged most of its first hearers. Munich hated it and so did most of the German cities—Stuttgart being, for some reason, the exception—where Felix Weingartner took it on tour with the Kaim Orchestra immediately after the premiere.

The very qualities Mahler had banked on were the ones that annoyed. The bells, real and imitated (in flutes), with which the music begins! And that rustic tune in the violins! What in heaven’s name was the composer of the Resurrection Symphony up to with this newfound naïveté? Most of the answers proposed at the time were politicized, anti-Semitic, ugly. Today, we perceive more clearly that what he was up to was writing a Mahler symphony, uncharacteristic only in its all but exclusive involvement with the sunny end of the expressive range. But naïve?

THE MUSIC  The violin tune, yes, is so popular in tone that we can hardly conceive that once upon a time it didn’t exist, but it is also pianissimo (very quiet), which is the first step toward subverting its simplicity. Then Mahler marks accents on it in two places, both unexpected. The first phrase ends, and while clarinets and bassoons mark the beat, low strings suggest a surprising though charmingly appropriate continuation. A horn interrupts them mid-phrase and itself has the very words taken out of its mouth by the bassoon. At that moment, the cellos and basses assert themselves with a severe “as I was saying,” just as the violins chime in with their own upside-down thoughts on the continuation that the lower strings had suggested four bars earlier. The game of interruptions, resumptions, extensions, reconsiderations, and unexpected combinations continues—for example, when the violins try their first melody again, the cellos have figured out that it is possible to imitate it, lagging two beats behind (a discovery they proffer with utmost discretion, pianissimo and deadpan)—until bassoons and low strings call “time out,” and the cellos sing an ardent something that clearly declares “new key” and “second theme.”

“Turning cliché into event” is how Theodor W. Adorno characterized Mahler’s practice. Ideas lead to many different conclusions and can be ordered in many ways. Mahler’s master here is the Haydn of the London symphonies and string quartets of the 1790s. The scoring, too, rests on Mahler’s ability to apply an original and altogether personal fantasy to resources not in themselves extraordinary. Trombones and the tuba are absent; only the percussion is on the lavish side. Mahler plays with this orchestra as though with a kaleidoscope. He can write a brilliantly sonorous tutti (with the full ensemble playing) but hardly ever does. What he likes better is to have the thread of discourse passed rapidly, wittily, from instrument to instrument, section to section. He thinks polyphonically, but he enjoys the combining of textures and colors as much as the combining of themes.

He could think of the most wonderful titles for the movements of this symphony, he wrote to a friend, but he refused “to betray them to the rabble of critics and listeners” who would then subject them to “their banal misunderstandings.” We do, however, have his name for the scherzo: Freund Hein spielt auf—Death Strikes Up. (Freund Hein—literally this could be rendered as “Friend Hal”—is a fairy tale bogy whose name is most often a euphemism for Death.) Alma Mahler amplified that hint by writing that here “the composer was under the spell of the self-portrait by Arnold Böcklin, in which Death fiddles into the painter’s ear while the latter sits entranced.” Death’s fiddle is tuned a whole tone high to make it harsher (the player is also instructed to make it sound like a country instrument and to enter “very aggressively”). Twice, Mahler tempers these grotesqueries with a gentle trio; Willem Mengelberg, the Amsterdam conductor, took detailed notes at Mahler’s 1904 rehearsals, and at this point he wrote into his score, “Here, he leads us into a lovely landscape.”

The adagio, which Mahler thought his finest slow movement, is a set of softly and gradually unfolding variations. It is rich in seductive melody, but the constant feature to which Mahler always returns is the tolling of the basses, piano under the pianissimo of the violas and cellos. The variations, twice interrupted by a leanly scored lament in the minor mode, become shorter, more diverse in character, more given to abrupt changes of outlook. They are also pulled more and more in the direction of E major, a key that asserts itself dramatically at the end of the movement in a blaze of sound. Working miracles in harmony, pacing, and orchestral fabric, Mahler, pronouncing a benediction, brings us back to serene quiet on the very threshold of the original G major, but when the finale almost imperceptibly emerges, it is in E. Our entry into this region has been prepared, but it is well that the music sound new, for Mahler means us to understand that we are now in heaven.

On February 6, 1892, Mahler had finished a song he called “Das himmlische Leben” (“Life in Heaven”), one of five humoresques on texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). Des Knaben Wunderhorn is a collection of German folk poetry compiled just after 1800 by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim. That, at least, is what it purports to be. In fact, the two poets indulged themselves freely in paraphrases, additions, and deletions, fixing things so as to give them a more antique and authentic ring, even contributing poems all their own. Mahler began to write Wunderhorn songs immediately after completing the First Symphony in 1888 (he had already borrowed a Wunderhorn poem as the foundation of the first of his Songs of a Wayfarer of 1884-85). The Wunderhorn then touches the Second, Third, and Fourth symphonies. The scherzo of No. 2 was composed together and shares material with a setting of the poem about Saint Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fishes, and the next movement is the song “Urlicht” (“Primal Light”). The Third Symphony’s fifth movement is another Wunderhorn song, “Es sungen drei Engel” (“Three Angels Sang”), and until about a year before completing that symphony, Mahler meant to end it with “Das himmlische Leben,” the song we now know as the finale of the Fourth. That explains why the Third appears to “quote” the Fourth, twice in the minuet and again in the “Drei Engel” song.

Mahler had to plan parts of the Fourth Symphony from the end back, so that the song would appear to be the outcome and conclusion of what was in fact composed eight years after the song. From a late letter of Mahler’s to the Leipzig conductor Georg Göhler, we know how important it was to him that listeners clearly understand how the first three movements all point toward and are resolved in the finale. The music, though gloriously inventive in detail, is of utmost cleanness and simplicity. The solemn and archaic chords first heard at “Sanct Peter in Himmel sieht zu” (“Saint Peter in heaven looks on”) have a double meaning for Mahler; here, they are associated with details about the domestic arrangements in this mystical, sweetly scurrile picture of heaven, but in the Third Symphony they belong with the bitter self-castigation at having transgressed the Ten Commandments and with the plea to God for forgiveness. Whether you are listening to the Fourth and remembering the Third, or the other way around, the reference is touching. It reminds us, as well, how much all of Mahler’s work is one work. Just as the symphony began with bells, so it ends with them—this time those wonderful, deep single harp-tones of which Mahler was the discoverer.

The poem Mahler used for the text of the Fourth Symphony’s finale is a Bavarian folk song called “Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen” (“Heaven is Hung with Violins”). On the text: Saint Luke’s symbol is a winged ox. Saint Martha, sister of Lazarus, is the patron saint of those engaged in service of the needy. It is said that Saint Ursula and her ten companions, returning home to England from Rome, were slaughtered by Huns who hated them for their Christian faith. Over the centuries these eleven martyrs somehow became eleven thousand.

—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotater from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

Recordings: Michael Tilson Thomas with Laura Claycomb and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media)  |  Claudio Abbado with Renée Fleming and the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon) 

Online: Keeping Score: Mahler’s Origins & Legacy, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (available from SFS Media at and on iTunes and Amazon)

ReadingMahler: The Symphonies, by Constantin Floros (Amadeus)  |  Mahler, by Henry-Louis de La Grange (Doubleday)  |  Gustav Mahler: The Wunderhorn Years, by Donald Mitchell (California)  |  The Mahler Companion, edited by Donald Mitchell and Andrew Nicholson (Oxford University Press)

(November 2017)

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